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XXII. Gottingen and Harvard a century ago

Whene'er with haggard eyes I view
This dungeon that I'm rotting in,
I think of those companions true
Who studied with me at the U-
niversity of Gottingen,
niversity of Gottingen.

To the majority of Harvard graduates the chief association with Gottingen is Canning's once-famous squib, of which this is the first verse, in the “Anti-Jacobin.” But the historical tie between the two universities is far too close to be forgotten; and I have lately come into possession of some quite interesting letters which demonstrate this. They show conclusively how much the development of Harvard College was influenced, nearly a century ago, by the German models, and how little in comparison by Oxford and Cambridge; and as the letters are all from men afterwards eminent, and pioneers in that vast band of American students who have since studied in Germany, their youthful opinions will possess a peculiar interest.

The three persons through whom this influence [328] most came were Joseph Green Cogswell, Edward Everett, and George Ticknor, all then studying at Gottingen. It happens that they had all been intimate in my father's family, and as he was very much interested in the affairs of the college,--of which he became in 1818 the “Steward and Patron,” and practically, as the Reverend A. P. Peabody assures us,1 the Treasurer,--they sent some of their appeals and arguments through him. This paper will consist chiefly of extracts from these letters, which speak for themselves as to the point of view in which the whole matter presented itself.

It will be well to bear in mind the following details as to the early history of these three men, taking them in order of age. Cogswell was born in 1786, graduated (Harvard) in 1806, was tutor in 1814-15 (having previously tried mercantile life), and went abroad in 1816. Ticknor was born in 1791, graduated (Dartmouth) in 1807, went to Germany in 1815, and was appointed professor of Modern Languages at Harvard in 1817. Everett was born in 1794, graduated (Harvard) in 1811, and went abroad on his appointment as Greek professor (Harvard) in 1815.

The first of these letters is from George [329] Ticknor, and is a very striking appeal in behalf of the Harvard College Library, which then consisted of less than 20,000 volumes, although the largest in the United States, with perhaps one exception.

Gottingen, May 20, 1816.
As you have talked a good deal in your letter about the college and its prospects, I suppose I may be allowed to say a few words about it in reply, though to be sure I have already said more than was perhaps proper in one like myself, who am not even a graduate there, and shall very probably get no other answer to what I may venture to say hereafter than that I should do better to mind my books, and let those who are intrusted with the affairs of ye (sic) college take care of them. I cannot, however, shut my eyes on the fact, that one very important and principal cause of the difference between our University and the one here is the different value we affix to a good library, and the different ideas we have of what a good library is. In America we look on the Library at Cambridge as a wonder, and I am sure nobody ever had a more thorough veneration for it than I had; but it was not necessary for me to be here six months to find out that it is nearly or quite half a century behind the libraries of Europe, and that it is much less remarkable that our stock of learning is so small than that it is so great, considering the means from which it is drawn are so inadequate. But what [330] is worse than the absolute poverty of our collections of books is the relative inconsequence in which we keep them. We found new professorships and build new colleges in abundance, but we buy no books; and yet it is to me the most obvious thing in the world that it would promote the cause of learning and the reputation of the University ten times more to give six thousand dollars a year to the Library than to found three professorships, and that it would have been wiser to have spent the whole sum that the new chapel had cost on books than on a fine suite of halls. The truth is, when we build up a literary Institution in America we think too much of convenience and comfort and luxury and show; and too little of real, laborious study and the means that will promote it. We have not yet learnt that the Library is not only the first convenience of a University, but that it is the very first necessity,that it is the life and spirit,--and that all other considerations must yield to the prevalent one of increasing and opening it, and opening it on the most liberal terms to all who are disposed to make use of it. I cannot better explain to you the difference between our University in Cambridge and the one here than by telling you that here I hardly say too much when I say that it consists in the Library, and that in Cambridge the Library is one of the last things thought and talked about,--that here they have forty professors and more than two hundred thousand volumes to instruct them, and in Cambridge twenty professors and less than twenty [331] thousand volumes. This, then, you see is the thing of which I am disposed to complain, that we give comparatively so little attention and money to the Library, which is, after all, the Alpha and Omega of the whole establishment,--that we are mortified and exasperated because we have no learned men, and yet make it physically impossible for our scholars to become such, and that to escape from this reproach we appoint a multitude of professors, but give them a library from which hardly one and not one of them can qualify himself to execute the duties of his office. You will, perhaps, say that these professors do not complain. I can only answer that you find the blind are often as gay and happy as those who are blessed with sight; but take a Cambridge professor, and let him live one year by a library as ample and as liberally administered as this is; let him know what it is to be forever sure of having the very book he wants either to read or to refer to; let him in one word know that he can never be discouraged from pursuing any inquiry for want of means, but on the contrary let him feel what it is to have all the excitements and assistance and encouragements which those who have gone before him in the same pursuits can give him, and then at the end of this year set him down again under the parsimonious administration of the Cambridge library,--and I will promise you that he shall be as discontented and clamorous as my argument can desire.

But I will trouble you no more with my argument, [332] though I am persuaded that the further progress of learning among us depends on the entire change of the system against which it is directed.

The next extract is from a letter of Cogswell's, and gives a glimpse at the actual work done by these young men:

Gottingen, March 8, 1817.
I must tell you something about our colony at Gottingen before I discuss other subjects, for you probably care little about the University and its host of professors, except as they operate upon us. First as to the Professor (Everett) and Dr. Ticknor, as they are called here; everybody knows them in this part of Germany, and also knows how to value them. For once in my life I am proud to acknowledge myself an American on the European side of the Atlantic: never was a country more fortunate in its representation abroad than ours has been in this instance; they will gain more for us in this respect than even in the treasures of learning they will carry back. Little as I have of patriotism, I delight to listen to the character which is here given of my countrymen; I mean as countrymen, and not as my particular friends: the despondency which it produces in my own mind of ever obtaining a place by their sides is more than counterbalanced by the gratification of my national feelings, to say not a word of my individual attachment. You must not think me extravagant, but I venture to say that the notions which the European literati have entertained [333] of America will be essentially changed by G. and E.'s [Ticknor's and Everett's] residence on the Continent; we were known to be a brave, a rich, and an enterprising people, but that a scholar was to be found among us, or any man who had a desire to be a scholar, had scarcely been conceived. It will also be the means of producing new correspondences and connections between the men of the American and European sides of the Atlantic, and spread much more widely among us a knowledge of the present literature and science of this Continent.

Deducting the time from the 13th of December to the 27th of January during which I was confined to my room, I have been pretty industrious; through the winter I behaved as well as one could expect. German has been my chief study; to give it a relief I have attended one hour a day to a lecture in Italian on the Modern Arts, and, to feel satisfied that I had some sober inquiry in hand, I have devoted another to Professor Saalfeld's course of European Statistics, so that I have generally been able to count at night twelve hours of private study and private instruction. This has only sharpened not satisfied my appetite. I have laid out for myself a course of more diligent labors the next semester. I shall then be at least eight hours in the lecture rooms, beginning at six in the morning. I must contrive, besides, to devote eight other hours to private study. I am not in the least Germanized, and yet it appalls me when I think of the difference between [334] an education here and in America. The great evil with us is, in our primary schools, the best years for learning are trifled and whiled away; boys learn nothing because they have no instructors, because we demand of one the full [work?] of ten, and because laziness is the first lesson which one gets in all our great schools. I know very well that we want but few closet scholars, few learned philologists, and few verbal commentators; that all our systems of government and customs and life suppose a preparation for making practical men, men who move, and are felt in the world; but all this could be better done without wasting every year from infancy to manhood. The system of education here is the very reverse of our own: in America boys are let loose upon the work when they are children, and fettered when they are sent to our college; here they are cloistered, too much so I acknowledge, till they can guide themselves, and then put at their own disposal at the universities. Luther's Reformation threw all the monkish establishments in the Protestant countries into the hands of the Princes, and they very wisely appropriated them to the purposes of education, but unluckily they have retained more of the monastic seclusion than they ought. The three great schools in Saxony, Pforte, Meissen, and — are kept in convents, and the boys enjoy little more than the liberty of a cloister. They are all very famous, the first more particularly; out of it have come half of the great scholars of the country. Still they [335] are essentially defective in the point above named. Just in the neighborhood of Gotha is the admirable institution of Salzmann, in a delightfully pleasant and healthy valley; his number is limited to thirty-eight, and he has twelve instructors,--admits no boy who does not bring with him the fairest character: when once admitted they become his children, and the reciprocal relation is cherished with corresponding tenderness and respect. I should like to proceed a little farther in this subject, but the bottom of my paper forbids.

The following is from Ticknor again, and shows, though without giving details, that the young men had extended their observations beyond Gottingen:--

Gottingen, November 30, 1816.
Dear sir,--On returning here about a fortnight since, after a journey through North Germany which had occupied us about two months, I found your kind letter of August 4 waiting to welcome me. I thank you for it with all my heart, and take the first moment of leisure I can find in the busy commencement of a new term, to answer it, that I may soon have the same pleasure again.

You say you wish to hear from me what hours of relaxation I have, and what acquaintances I make, in this part of the Continent. The first is very easily told, and the last would not have been difficult before the journey from which I have just returned; but now the number is more than I can write or you [336] willingly hear. However, I will answer both your inquiries in the spirit in which they are made.

As to relaxation, in the sense of the word in which I used to employ it at home,--meaning the hours I lounged so happily away when the weariness of the evening came, on your sofa, and the time I used to pass with my friends in general, I know not how or why, but always gayly and thoughtlessly,--of this sort of relaxation I know nothing here but the end of an evening which I occasionally permit myself to spend with Cogswell, whose residence here has in this respect changed the whole color of my life. During the last semester, I used to visit occasionally at about twenty houses in Gottingen, chiefly as a means of learning to speak the language. As the population here is so changeable, and as every man is left to live exactly as he chooses, it is customary for all those who wish to continue their intercourse with the persons resident here to make a call at the beginning of each semester, which is considered a notice that they are still here and still mean to go into society. I, however, feel no longer the necessity of visiting for the purpose of learning German, and now that Cogswell is here cannot desire it for any other purpose; have made visits only to three or four of the professors, and shall, therefore, not go abroad at all. As to exercise, however, I have enough. Three times a day I must cross the city entirely to get my lessons. I go out twice besides, a shorter distance for dinner and a fourth lesson; and four times a week I take an [337] hour's exercise for consciencea sake and my mother's in the riding-school. Four times a week I make Cogswell a visit of half an hour after dinner, and three times I spend from nine to ten in the evening with him, so that I feel I am doing quite right and quite as little as I ought to do in giving up the remaining thirteen hours of the day to study, especially as I gave fourteen to it last winter without injury.

The journey we have lately taken was for the express purpose of seeing all the universities or schools of any considerable name in the country. This in a couple of months we easily accomplished, and of course saw professors, directors, and schoolmasters — men of great learning and men of little learning, and men of no learning at all — in shoals.

This is from Cogswell again, and is certainly a clarion appeal as to the need of thoroughness in teaching and learning:--

Gottingen, July 13, 1817.
I hope that you and every other person interested in the College are reconciled to Mr. Everett's plan of remaining longer in Europe than was at first intended, as I am sure you would be do you know the use he makes of his time, and the benefit you are all to derive from his learning. Before I came to Gottingen I used to wonder why it was that he wished to remain here so long; I now wonder he can consent to leave so soon. The truth is, you all mistake the cause of your impatience: you believe [338] that it comes from a desire of seeing him at work for and giving celebrity to the College, but it arises from a wish to have him in your society, at your dinner-tables, at your suppers, your clubs, and your ladies, at your tea-parties (you perceive I am aiming at Boston folks): however, all who have formed such expectations must be disappointed; he will find that most of these gratifications must be sacrificed to attain the objects of a scholar's ambition. What can men think when they say that two years are sufficient to make a Greek scholar? Does not everybody know that it is the labor of half a common life to learn to read the language with tolerable facility? I remember to have heard little Drisen say, a few days after I came here, that he had been spending eighteen years, at least sixteen hours a day, exclusively upon Greek, and that he could not now read a page of the tragedians without a dictionary. When I went home I struck Greek from the list of my studies; I now think no more of attaining it than I do of becoming an astrologer. In fact, the most heart-breaking circumstance attending upon human knowledge is that a man can never go any farther than “to know how little's to be known” ; it fills, then, the mind of scholars with despair to look upon the map of science, as it does that of the traveler to look upon the map of the earth, for both see what a mere speck can be traveled over, and of that speck how imperfect is the knowledge which is acquired. Let any one who believes that he has penetrated the mysteries of all science, and learnt the [339] powers and properties of whatever is contained in the kingdoms of air, earth, fire, and water, but just bring his knowledge to the test; let him, for example, begin with what seems the simplest of all inquiries, and enumerate the plants which grow upon the surface of the globe, and call them by their names, and, when he finds that this is beyond his limits, let him descend to a single class and bring within it all that the unfathomed caves of ocean and the unclimbed mountains bear; and as this is also higher than he can reach, let him go still lower and include only one family, or a particular species, or an individual plant, and mark his points of ignorance upon each, and then, if his pride of knowledge is not humbled enough, let him take but a leaf or the smallest part of the most common flower, and give a satisfactory solution for many of the phenomena they exhibit. But, you will ask, is Gottingen the only place for the acquisition of such learning? No, not the only, but I believe far the best for such learning as it is necessary for Mr. E. to fit him to make Cambridge in some degree a Gottingen, and render it no longer requisite to depend upon the latter for the formation of their scholars: it is true that very few of what the Germans call scholars are needed in America; if there would only be one thorough one to begin with, the number would soon be sufficient for all the uses which could be made of them, and for the literary character of the country. This one, I say, could never be formed there, because, in the first place, [340] there is no one who knows how it is to be done; secondly, there are no books, and then, by the habits of desultory study practiced there, are wholly incompatible with it. A man as a scholar must be completely upset, to use a blacksmith's phrase; he must have learnt to give up his love of society and of social pleasures, his interest in the common occurrences of life, in the political and religious contentions of the country, and in everything not directly connected with his single aim. Is there any one willing to make such a sacrifice? This I cannot answer, but I do assure you that it is the sacrifice made by almost every man of classical learning in Germany, though to be sure the sacrifice of the enjoyments of friendly intercourse with mankind to letters is paying much less dear for fame here than the same thing would be in America. For my own part I am sorry I came here, because I was too old to be upset; like a horseshoe worn thin, I shall break as soon as I begin to wear on the other side: it makes me very restless at this period of my life to find that I know nothing. I would not have wished to have made the discovery unless I could at the same time have been allowed to remain in some place where I could get rid of my ignorance; and, now that I must go from Gottingen, I have no hope of doing that.

The following from Edward Everett carries the war yet farther into Africa, and criticises not merely American colleges, but also secondary schools:-- [341]

Gottingen, September 17, 1817.
You must not laugh at me for proceeding to business the first thing, and informing you in some sort as an argument, that, if I have been unreasonable in prolonging my stay here, I have at least passed my time not wholly to disadvantage,--that I received this morning my diploma as Doctor of Philosophy of this University, the first American, and as far as I know, Englishman, on whom it has ever been conferred. You will perhaps have heard that it was my intention to have passed from this University to that of Oxford, and to have spent this winter there. I have altered this determination for the sake of joining forces with Theodore Lyman at Paris this winter; and as he proposes to pass the ensuing summer in traveling in the South of France, I shall take that opportunity of going to England. It is true I should have liked to have gone directly from Gottingen to Oxford, to have kept the thread as it were unbroken, and gone on with my studies without any interruption. But I find, even at Paris, that I have no object there but study; and Professor Gaisford, at Oxford, writes me that it is every way better that I should be there in summer, as the Library is open a greater part of the day. Meanwhile, I try to feel duly grateful to Providence and my friends at home to whom I owe the opportunity of resorting to the famous fountains of European wisdom. The only painful feeling I carry with me is that I may not have health, or strength, or ability to fulfill the demands which such an opportunity [342] will create and justify. More is apt to be expected in such cases than it is possible to perform; besides that, after the schoolmaster is prepared for his duty, all depends upon whether the schoolboy is also prepared for his. You must not allow any report to the contrary to shake your faith in my good — will in the cause. Some remarks which I committed to paper at the request of my brother upon the subject of a National University,--an institution which by exciting an emulation in our quarter would be the best thing that could happen to Cambridge,--have, I hear, led some good men to believe that I was for deserting the service at Cambridge still more promptly than I had done at Boston,--a suggestion certainly too absurd to have been made, or to need to have been contradicted. However, still more important than all which national or state universities can do themselves immediately, is the necessity we must impose on the schools of reforming and improving themselves, or, rather, are the steps we must take to create good schools. All we have are bad, the common reading and writing ones not excepted; but of schools which we have to fit boys for college, I think the Boston Latin School and the Andover Academy are the only ones that deserve the name, and much I doubt if they deserve it. There is much truth in the remark so constantly made that we are not old enough for European perfection, but we are old enough to do well all it is worth while to do at all; and if a child here in eight years can read and speak Latin fluently, there is no [343] reason why our youth, after spending the same time on it, should know little or nothing about it. Professional education with us commences little or no earlier than it does here, and yet we approach it in all departments with a quarter part of the previous qualification which is here possessed. But also it is the weakness of mankind to do more than he is obliged to. The sort of obligation, to be sure, which is felt, differs with different spirits, and one is content to be the first man in his ward, one in his town, one in his county, another in his state. To all these degrees of dignity the present education is adequate; and we turn out reputable ministers, doctors, lawyers, professors, and schoolmasters,--men who get to be as wise at ye (sic) age of threescore as their fathers were at sixty, and who transmit the concern of life to their children in as good condition as they took it themselves. Meanwhile, the physical and commercial progress of ye (sic) country goes on, and more numerous doctors and more ministers are turned out, not more learned ones, to meet it. I blushed burning red to the ears the other day as a friend here laid his hand upon a newspaper containing the address of the students at Baltimore to Mr. Monroe, with the translation of it. It was less matter that the translation was not English; my German friend could not detect that. But that the original was not Latin I could not, alas! conceal. It was, unfortunately, just like enough to very bad Latin to make it impossible to pass it off for Kickapoo or Pottawattamy, which I was at first indined [344] to attempt. My German persisted in it that it was meant for Latin, and I wished in my heart that the Baltimore lads would stick to the example of their fathers and mob the Federalists, so they would give over this inhuman violence on the poor old Romans. I say nothing of ye (sic) address, for like all [illegible] it seems to have been ye (sic) object, in the majority of those productions, for those who made them to compliment, not the President, but themselves. It is a pity Dr. Kirkland's could not have been published first, to serve as a model how they might speak to the President without coldness on one side and adulation on the other, and of themselves without intrusion or forwardness.

The following letter transfers Edward Everett to Oxford, and gives in a somewhat trenchant way his unfavorable criticisms on the English universities of that day. He subsequently sent his son to Cambridge, England, but it was forty years later:--

Oxford, June 6, 1818.
I have been over two Months in England, and am now visiting Oxford, having passed a Week in Cambridge. There is more teaching and more learning in our American Cambridge than there is in both the English Universities together, thoa between them they have four times Our number of Students. The misfortune for us is that our subjects are not so hopeful. We are obliged to do at [345] Cambridge [U. S.] that which is done at Eton and Westminster, at Winchester, Rugby, and Harrow, as well as at Oxford and Cambridge. Boys may go to Eton at 6, and do go often at 8, 10, and of Necessity before 12. They stay there under excellent Masters, 6 Years, and then come to the University. Whereas a smart clever boy with us, will learn out, even at Mr. Gould's, in 4 Years, and it was the boast of a very distinguished Man Named Bird [Samuel Bird, H. C., 1809], who was two Years before me at Cambridge, that he had fitted in 160 days. And I really think that I could, in six months teach a mature lad, who was willing to work hard, all the Latin and Greek requisite for admission.

This letter from Cogswell refers to George Bancroft, who was subsequently sent out by Harvard College, after his graduation in 1817, that he might be trained for the service of the institution.

Gottingen, May 4th, 1819.
It was truly generous and noble in the corporation to send out young Bancroft in the manner I understand they did; he will reward them for it. I thought very much of him, when I had him under my charge at Cambridge, and now he appears to me to promise a great deal more. I know not at whose suggestion this was done, but from the wisdom of the measure, I should conclude it must be the President's; it is applying the remedy exactly when it is most wanted, a taste once created for [346] classical learning at the College, and the means furnished for cultivating it, and the long desired reform in education in my opinion is virtually made; knowledge of every other kind may be as well acquired among us, as the purposes to which it is to be applied demand. We are not wanting in good lawyers or good physicians, and if we could but form a body of men of taste and letters, our literary reputation would not long remain at the low stand which it now is.

It appears from a letter of my father's, fourteen years later (November 21, 1833), that, after four years abroad, Mr. Bancroft's college career was a disappointment, and he was evidently regarded as a man spoiled by vanity and self-consciousness, and not commanding a strong influence over his pupils. My father wrote of these two teachers:--

Cambridge, Mass., 21 Nov., 1833.
Cogswell at New York to negotiate. He is much better fitted for a City. He loves society, bustle, fashion, polish, and good living. He would do best in some Mercantile House as a partner, say to Bankers like Prime, Ward, and King. He was at first a Scholar, a Lawyer in Maine. His wife dying,sister to Dr. Nichols' wife (Gilman),--Mr. C. went abroad. Was supercargo, then a residing agent of Wm. Gray's in Europe, Holland, France, and Italy; was a good Merchant; expensive in his habits, he [347] did not accumulate; tired of roving, he accepted the office of Librarian here. He would not manage things under control of others, and so left College and sat up Round Hill School. His partner, Bancroft,--an unsuccessful scholar, pet of Dr. Kirkland's, who like Everett had four years abroad, mostly Germany, and at expense of College,came here unfit for anything. His manners, style of writing, Theology, etc., bad, and as a Tutor only the laughing butt of all College. Such an one was easily marked as unfit for a School.

From whatever cause, he remained as tutor for one year only (1822-23), leaving Cambridge for the Round Hill School.

It would be curious to dwell on the later influence upon the college of the other men from whom so much was reasonably expected. Ticknor, the only one who was not a Harvard graduate, probably did most for Harvard of them all, for he became professor of Modern Languages, and introduced in that department the elective system, which there became really the nucleus of the expanded system of later days. Everett, when President, actually set himself against that method when the attempt had been made to enlarge it under Quincy. Cogswell was librarian from 1821 to 1823; left Harvard for the Round Hill School, and became ultimately the organizer of the Astor Library. Frederic [348] Henry Hedge, who had studied in Gottingen as a schoolboy and belonged to a younger circle, did not become professor until many years later.

But while the immediate results of personal service to the college on the part of this group of remarkable men may have been inadequate, --since even Ticknor, ere parting, had with the institution a disagreement never yet fully elucidated,--yet their collective influence both on Harvard University and on American education was enormous. They helped to break up that intellectual sterility which had begun to show itself during the isolation of a merely colonial life; they prepared the way for the vast modern growth of colleges, schools, and libraries in this country, and indirectly helped that birth of a literature which gave us Irving, Cooper, Bryant, and the North American Review ; and culminated later in the brilliant Boston circle of authors, almost all of whom were Harvard men, and all of whom had felt the Harvard influence. [349]

1 Harvard Reminiscences, by Andrew Preston Peabody, D. D., Ll. D., p. 18.

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